Orange County citrus growers of the 1880s never could have imagined that a gimmick designed to grab the attention of wholesalers someday would be considered an art form.
When growers first shipped their oranges to the East Coast, the fruit traveled by rail in plain wooden crates. But, to achieve an identity with wholesalers, the growers began applying colorful lithographed labels to both ends of their boxes.
Designed at print shops in Los Angeles and San Francisco, the 10x11-inch paper labels were to become popular symbols for the various brands and remain so for 70 years. Today they are collectors' items, selling from $5 for the most common to thousands of dollars for rare labels.
Subject matter varied. A Santa Ana packer, Thomas, Gowen & Willard, celebrated American history with "Liberty Girl," a patriotic label displaying a white-robed young woman holding an orange and an American flag. Bradford Bros. Inc., a Placentia packer, produced the "California Dream," a romantic, Art Deco-style label in which a pair of gold-trimmed peacocks wandered through dark trees.
At times the subject was a county landmark: One Villa Park Orchards Assn. label showed the surf crashing against the Bird Rocks of Laguna Beach, and another illustrated Three Arch Bay in South Laguna.
Sometimes the subject was pure whimsy: The Garden Grove Citrus Assn.'s "Jack Horner" label depicted the nursery-rhyme character trading in his plum pie for a bowl of Valencia oranges.
Although the designs were intricate, the labels usually were unsigned. The lithography houses that produced them "did not want to set up a system where one artist became known. They wanted to keep the artists anonymous," says Gordon T. McClelland, a San Clemente writer who has rummaged through scrapbooks and packers' basements for 20 years to build a collection of 5,000 labels.
Labels usually were a joint production of the packing house and the lithographers' "sketch artists," McClelland says. An artist would visit a packing house and rough out a design. Back at the studio, another artist might paint the design in watercolors, then mail it to the packing house for approval. Eventually, the design would be transferred to limestone blocks or aluminum plates, one for each color used. The final design would emerge as the image on each stone or plate was transferred sequentially to the label.
One Orange County packing house did break tradition by issuing a series of signed labels. In the early 1920s, the Anaheim Orange and Lemon Assn. commissioned a series of designs by Glendale painter Duncan Gleason. Sometimes cast as a redhead, sometimes as a brunette, Gleason's future wife, Dorothy Ferguson, was the model for the association's Meritoria, Doria and Favorita brands. (According to McClelland, Gleason's commission from these portraits financed his wedding and honeymoon.)
Orange-crate labels followed commercial art trends of the day, moving from representational art in the '20s and '30s to the bold lettering and airbrushed graphics of the '40s.
But the economics of the shipping business spelled doom for orange-crate art as packers in the mid-'50s traded their wooden boxes for cardboard containers. Although the packers printed an image representing their brand on the cardboard, they now used a simple linedrawing and usually two colors--green and orange or red and blue.
The Bradford Bros.' Tesoro brand demonstrated the change. In the '30s, its symbol was a Mexican girl pulling glowing oranges from a treasure chest. But by the '50s, the chest and the girl remained, but their colorful shadings had given way to a caricature of the girl and her treasure outlined in green.